The Uniqueness of Tsongkhapa’s Presentation of the Prasangika View

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Basic Points about Voidness and Mental Labeling

  • Tsongkhapa studied and debated with masters from all traditions current at his time. He was a revolutionary.  Here are some of his unique points about the assertions of selflessness and voidness in the four Indian Buddhist tenet systems, particularly Prasangika.
  • He was very much concerned about the breakdown of ethics at his time, especially among the monastic community. To reaffirm the importance of cause and effect and counter the current assertion that conventional truth was totally false, he emphasized the mutual compatibility of the Prasangika view of voidness and dependent arising.
  • As he wrote In Praise of Dependent Arising: (18) There is no such thing as a self-establishing nature; also, the entire presentation is reasonable of “this” arising from depending on “this.” As these two (points) are non-contradictory, is there need to mention that they fit together?
  • Tsongkhapa uniquely pointed out that Prasangika does have positive philosophical assertions concerning commonsense conventional objects that do not fall to the extreme of absolutism. Other Tibetan traditions asserted that Prasangika does not make any positive philosophical assertions, but just shows the absurd conclusions that follow from discursive conceptual thinking, in order to help practitioners go beyond conceptual thought to non-conceptual realization.
  • Many of these other Tibetan traditions asserted Maha-Madhyamaka: Since the four extremes – truly established existence, non-truly established existent, both and neither – are all conceptual categories, then to gain non-conceptual cognition of voidness (emptiness), we need to realize voidness beyond words and concepts.
  • Tsongkhapa uniquely asserted it is possible to have non-conceptual cognition of the voidness of truly established existence, which includes the voidness of all four extremes.
  • To understand Tsongkhapa’s presentation of the correct view of selflessness and voidness in the tenet systems, we need to understand that voidness is a refutation of an impossible way to establish the existence of something and not a refutation simply of an impossible way in which something exists. Because a certain way of existing is impossible, it is impossible to establish that something exists by claiming it is because it exists in that impossible way. This is significant for correctly understanding Tsongkhapa’s unique presentation of the Prasangika assertion that the conventional existence of all validly knowable phenomena can only be established in terms of the mental labeling of them with categories and the designation of them with words. Otherwise, we may misunderstand his assertion as meaning all conventional phenomena exist only as what are mentally labeled with categories and designated with words. If that were the case, then the absurd conclusion would follow that all conventional phenomena are merely products of the conceptual processes of mental labeling and designation, which is not the intended meaning. 
  • Further, to understand the Prasangika refutation of self-established existence (rang-bzhin-gyi grub-pa, existence established by something’s self-nature, inherent existence) – asserted by the Sautrantika, Chittamatra and Svatantrika systems – we need to understand the distinctions between the imputation of a person on the five aggregates, the mental labeling of the category “person” on the imputation of a person, and the designation of the word “person” on the category “person.” 
  • Self-established existence is defined within the context of mental labeling with categories and designation with words. These two occur only in conceptual cognition and entail, in the former case, a mental label (btags – an audio category [sgra-spyi] or object/meaning category [don-spyi]), a basis for labeling (gdags-gzhi) and a referent object (btags-chos), and in the latter case a designation (ming – a word or name), a basis for designation and a referent object. These need to be differentiated from the imputation of a nonstatic, noncongruent affecting variable (ldan-min ‘du-byed), such as a person, aging or impermanence (nonstaticness), or a static phenomenon other than a category, such as a space or voidness, on a basis for imputation. In such cases, the imputation phenomenon can be cognized both non-conceptually and conceptually and there is no referent object. Further, mental labels and words need to be labeled or designated by someone through conceptual cognition; imputations do not need to be imputed by anyone. They are just, in a sense, facts about their bases for imputation. Even non-conceptual cognition does not actively impute them: it just cognizes them.
Imputation (person, impermanence, voidness)
[knowable non-conceptually or conceptually]
Basis for imputation
Mental label (category) 
[knowable only conceptually] 
Referent object Basis for labeling
Designation (name or word) 
[knowable only conceptually]
Referent object Basis for designation

Referent “thing”
(focal support)

  • Self-established existence means existence established by the fact that, in the context of mental labeling or designation, when we search for the referent “thing” (btags-don) – the actual “thing” referred to by a name or concept, corresponding to the names or concepts for something – it is findable as a focal support (dmigs-rten), backing up and, in a sense, holding up the referent object (btags-chos). The referent “thing” is findable on the side of the referent object. Its existence is established there by its self-establishing nature (rang-bzhin) on its own side. In other words, although all validly knowable objects have a self-nature (rang-bzhin), which in many cases is their functional nature; yet with grasping for self-established existence, we grasp at the self-nature of the referent object and mentally fabricate that it exists as a self-establishing nature. This renders the referent object into a referent “thing.”
  • Prasangika refutes this with the correct understanding of dependent arising in terms of causes, parts and mental labeling with categories (concepts) and designation with words.
  • Lower tenet systems help us to gradually understand the Prasangika position by progressively refuting more. 

 Vaibhashika

  • What establishes that anything exists is its substantial nature (rdzas), which enables it to perform a function. Even static phenomena have substantially established existence (rdzas-su grub-pa) since they cause the cognition of them.
  • Vaibhashika refutes that a person is a static, partless entity that can exist independently of a network of five aggregates and which inhabits, posseses and controls the body and mind as its residence, possessions and objects to control and use. The negation known as the “coarse selflessness of a person” (gang-zag bdag-med rags-pa, coarse identitylessness of a person, coarse lack of an impossible soul of persons) is that the existence of a person cannot be established by claiming that it exists as a static, partless, independently existing atman. It cannot be established as such because it is not true. This negation is an implicative negation (ma-yin dgag) – it leaves after the negation the affirmation that the existence of a person can be established as a nonstatic, non-partless, non-independently existing imputation on the basis of a network of five aggregates.
  • Vaibhashika asserts a similar implicative negation as the selflessness of all phenomena: The existence of all phenomena cannot be established by claiming that they exist as the possessions of a static, partless, independently existing self.
  • Unawareness of this coarse selflessness is doctrinally-based – based on learning and accepting the teachings of a non-Buddhist Indian school of philosophy concerning atman – entails unawareness of the whole doctrinally-based package. Although this is so, we can have both doctrinally-based and automatically arising incorrect consideration regarding each of the features of such an atman – for instance, incorrectly considering something nonstatic as static. It is very helpful to identify the problems and suffering we experience as a result of such incorrect consideration.
  • Vaibhashika asserts that the basis for imputation of a person is the mere collection of all five aggregates. Since when we cognize a person, we do not cognize the entire collection of five aggregates simultaneously with it, Vaibhashika is unique in asserting that persons are self-sufficiently knowable (rang-rkya thub-pa’i rdzas-yod).

Sautrantika

  • Sautrantika asserts the coarse selflessness of persons as a non-implicative negation (med-dgag). Because there is no such thing as a static, partless, independently existing atman, living inside the body and mind as its possession and controlling them, the coarse selflessness of a person is the non-implicative negation that there is no such way of establishing the existence of a person as its being by the power of a person being such an atman. 
  • In other words, even though it automatically seems as though we can prove that we exist as a person because it appears to us as though we are a static, partless, independently existing entity inside our heads as the author of the mental voice that occurs in our discursive thinking, this does not prove that we exist in that way. It doesn’t prove it because there is no such atman and so no such way of validly proving it. This is a non-implicative negation, which doesn’t leave any implication behind concerning how the existence of ourselves as a person can be established.
  • Similarly, the coarse selflessness of all phenomena is the non-implicative negation phenomenon: there is no such way of establishing the existence of all phenomenon as its being by the power of them being the possessions of person as a static, partless, independently existing atman.
  • Sautrantika differentiates nonstatic objective entities (rang-mtshan) as having substantially established existence and static metaphysical entities (spyi-mtshan), such as categories, as lacking substantially established existence because they do not perform any function. Vaibhashika asserted categories as nonstatic, noncongruent affecting variables.
  • In common with Vaibhashika, however, Sautrantika asserts that sensory non-conceptual cognition of forms of physical phenomena occurs with the objective physical phenomena substantially existing before we cognize them, and then when we cognize them, a fully transparent mental hologram of them arises and appears in our cognition and, through it, we cognize the external objective phenomena.
  • Sautrantika asserts that persons, as imputations on five aggregates, are objective entities, but unlike in Vaibhashika, they are not self-sufficiently knowable. They are imputedly knowable (btags-yod), as are categories and words. For imputedly knowable phenomena, the bases for imputation (or bases or mental labeling, or bases for designation) must appear together with the imputation phenomena in a mental hologram. First, only the bases are cognized and then, immediately following, both the bases and the imputation phenomena are cognized together.
  •  All phenomena have individual defining characteristic marks (mtshan-nyid) – a characteristic mark defining the individuality of something as an object of valid cognition. The mental factor of distinguishing (‘du-shes) focuses on it in order to differentiate an object from everything other than that object in a cognitive field, like a field of vision, or in general from everything else. 
  • In the case of persons, Sautrantika asserts that the defining characteristic mark of a person is found on the side of mental consciousness as part of the five aggregates that are its basis for imputation. Since mental consciousness is always present no matter which parts of the five aggregates we cognize when we cognize someone, for instance the sight of their body, a person is always cognized imputedly with mental consciousness included as its basis for imputation. Because of that, persons are imputedly knowable. For ease of discussion, let us say that the basis for imputation of a person when seeing their body is their mental consciousness.

Moment 1 Moment 2 Moment 3
Vaibhashika (self-sufficiently knowable person) Externally existent person as an imputation on the collection of all five aggregates Sensory cognition of just the person through a fully transparent mental hologram of just the person, without that mental hologram also including all five aggregates on which the person is an imputation
    Sautrantika (imputedly knowable person) Externally existent body and person as on imputation on their mental consciousness Sensory cognition of only the body, but not yet cognition of the person as an imputation on the mental consciousness, through a fully transparent mental hologram of the body and the person as an imputation on the mental consciousness Sensory cognition of both the body and the person as an imputation on the mental consciousness, through a fully transparent mental hologram of the body and the person as an imputation on the mental consciousness
  • Because there is no such thing as a self-sufficiently knowable imputation phenomenon, the subtle selflessness of a person (gang-zag bdag-med phra-mo, subtle identitylessness of a person, subtle lack of an impossible soul of persons) is the non-implicative negation that there is no such way of establishing the existence of a person as it being by the power of a person, as an imputation phenomenon, being self-sufficiently knowable. 
  • Just because it seems like there is a person sitting in our heads talking, as if it could be known all by itself, that does not prove that the self exists in that impossible way. We can only think of that self simultaneously with thinking of that voice as its basis. 
  • It is very helpful to think of the suffering and problems we have as a result of imagining we can establish that we exist in that way. Just because we worry about “me” and what people think of “me,” doesn’t prove that a “me” exists as something knowable independently of a body, etc. It is also imputed on other aspects of our basis for imputation and cognized together with that. 
  • Similar to the coarse selflessness of all phenomena, Sautrantika asserts the subtle selflessness of all phenomena as the non-implicative negation phenomenon: there is no such way of establishing the existence of all phenomenon as its being by the power of them being the possessions of a self-sufficiently knowable person.
  • Because Vaibhashika asserts that all phenomena are self-sufficiently knowable, it does not assert a subtle selflessness of persons or of phenomena.
  • Tsongkhapa’s way of asserting the subtle selflessness of persons in Sautrantika is unique. Those before him defined it differently, because they asserted the false aspectarian view of Sautrantika, whereas Tsongkhapa followed the true aspectarian interpretation.
  • According to the false aspectarian view, all commonsense objects – objects that pervade the data from all senses and extend over time – as well as imputations on them such as persons, are mental syntheses, mentally fabricated by conceptual cognition and known only by conceptual cognition. Sensory non-conceptual cognition cognizes only one moment of the data of one sense and does not cognize commonsense objects. True aspectarians assert that sensory non-conceptual cognition does cognize commonsense objects.
  • Sautrantika asserts that every validly knowable phenomenon has existence established by its individual defining characteristics (rang-gi mtshan-nyid-kyis grub-pa) and not merely by the power of its being the referent object of mental labeling with categories and designation with words. It is as if the characteristic mark establishes an encasing plastic film, encapsulating and delineating something as a “thing.” These characteristic marks establish them not only as validly knowable phenomena, but also establish them as belonging to the categories in which they fit and as being the meaning and objects signified by the words for them.
  • It is helpful to think of all the categories in which we fit and the problems and sufferings we have when we deny or ignore some of them.

Chittamatra (Also Known as Yogachara and Vijnanavada)

  • A person’s coarse and subtle selflessnesses are the same as in Sautrantika.
  • Although Chittamatra differentiates dependent phenomena (gzhan-dbang – nonstatic phenomena), thoroughly established phenomena (yongs-grub – voidnesses) and totally conceptional phenomena (kun-btags – categories and other static phenomena, plus nonexistent phenomena) and asserts different valid and invalid ways of establishing the existence for each, here we shall deal only with dependent phenomena, which includes persons. Note, however, that Tsongkhapa’s way of dividing all phenomena into these three divisions and his way of asserting the type of existence and type of voidness that each has are unique. 
  • Sautrantika asserted that nonstatic phenomena have objective reality and exist externally, “out there,” the moment before we cognize them. They do not exist merely in the cognition of them, but have truly established existence and we can establish that because they perform a function.
  • Chittamatra refutes that. They explain that in the moment before the sensory cognition of something, there is no way to establish the external existence of that object as the focal condition (dmigs-rkyen) for the sensory cognition of it to arise. Further, there is no way to establish the external existence of the component elements (earth, water, etc.) of that object as the natal source (rdzas) for the mental hologram that appears in the sensory cognition of it.
  • The natal source of that mental hologram, the sensory consciousness of it and the accompanying mental factors is just the karmic seed (sa-bon, tendency) for the sensory cognition, all in one package. Vaibhashika and Sautrantika (and later, Sautrantika Svatantrika and Prasangika) assert separate natal sources for each.
  • Vaibhashika and Sautrantika asserted that karmic seeds are imputations on mental consciousness. Chittamatra asserts that karmic seeds are imputations on the individual’s foundation consciousness (kun-gzhi rnam-shes, Skt. alayavijnana). Further, the defining characteristic marks of persons are also found on the side of their foundation consciousnesses. Whatever objects sensory or mental consciousness cognizes, foundation consciousness also cognizes, but in a non-determining fashion (snang-la ma-nges-pa). It does not determine decisively what its object is.
  • In sensory non-conceptual cognition, in moment 1, there is just the seed for the cognition as an imputation on a person’s foundation consciousness and the singular natal source of the cognition. There is no external natal source. In moment 2, there arises from this seed the opaque mental hologram of, for instance, the colored shapes of a body and the commonsense body and the person as an imputation on the body, plus the foundation consciousness, sensory consciousness and mental factors aimed only at the body and not also at the person. In moment 3, there is sensory and foundation consciousness cognition of both the body and the person. 

Moment 1 Moment 2 Moment 3
Sautrantika [1] External natal source (the component elements of earth, water, etc.) for the externally existent body with the externally existent person as an imputation on all five aggregates, but with its defining characteristic on the side of mental consciousness [2] Separate internal natal sources for the primary consciousness and each of the mental factors for cognizing it; no foundation consciousness Sensory cognition of only the body, but not yet cognition of the person as an imputation on the mental consciousness, through a fully transparent mental hologram of the body and the person as an imputation on the mental consciousness Sensory cognition of both the body and the person as an imputation on the mental consciousness, through a fully transparent mental hologram of the body and the person as an imputation on the mental consciousness
Chittamatra [1] Karmic seed on the foundation consciousness as the common internal natal source of the sensory consciousness, all the mental factors and the cognitive objects, namely the body with the person as an imputation on all five aggregates, but with its defining characteristic on the side of foundation consciousness . [2] No external natal source. Foundation and sensory cognition of only the body, but not yet of the person as an imputation on the foundation consciousness, through an opaque mental hologram of the body and the person as an imputation on the foundation consciousness Foundation and sensory cognition of both the body and the person as an imputation on the foundation consciousness, through an opaque mental hologram of the body and the person as an imputation on the foundation consciousness
  • Tsongkhapa is unique in asserting this true aspectarian view of sensory cognition in Chittamatra. Prior masters asserted the false aspectarian view, similar to what they had asserted with Sautrantika, but with the caveat of no separate, external natal source for the colored shapes that arise in the sensory cognition.
  • Since, in sensory cognition, there are no such things as separate natal sources for the dependent phenomena cognized and the cognitions of them, the coarse selflessness of all phenomena (chos-kyi bdag-med rags-pa, coarse identitlyessness of all phenomena, coarse lack of an impossible soul of all phenomena) is the non-implicative negation that there is no such way of establishing the existence of the dependent phenomena cognized in sensory cognition as it being by their having a separate natal source from the ways of being aware of it.
  • It is helpful to think about how, for instance, just because the mental hologram that arises of a pimple on our face being prominent when we look in a mirror seems to have come from an externally existent pimple, that doesn’t prove that what we see as prominent corresponds to objective external reality and it is a prominent object in the mental hologram that arises when everyone looks at our face. Think of the suffering that we experience as a result of this misconception.
  • Concerning existence established by defining characteristic marks, recall that more fully it is defined as the existence of an object being established by the power of its defining characteristic mark (rang-mtshan-gyis grub-pa) and not merely by the power of its being the referent object of mental labeling with categories and designation with words. There are two possibilities: (1) Existence established by the power of the characteristic mark alone and not at all by the power of its being the referent object of mental labeling and designation. This is called truly established existence (bden-par grub-pa). (2) Existence established by the power of the characteristic mark together with its being the referent object of mental labeling and designation. Both cases are existence established not merely by the power of being the referent object of mental labeling with a category and designation with a word.
  • Concerning dependent (nonstatic) phenomena, Chittamatra agrees with Sautrantika that their individual defining characteristic marks have the power to establish their existence as validly knowable object in sensory non-conceptual cognition. However, they refute the Sautrantika assertion that their defining characteristic marks have the power to establish these dependent (nonstatic) phenomena as belonging to the categories with which they are mentally labeled and as being the meaning or object signified by the words with which they are designated.
  • Consider the case of a dependent phenomenon appearing as the involved object of a conceptual cognition in which it is mentally labeled as belonging to a category and designated with a word. Although there is a defining characteristic mark on the side of that object that has the power to establish its existence as a validly knowable object, Chittamatra – unlike Sautrantika – asserts that that defining characteristic mark lacks the power to establish the existence of the object as belonging to that category or as being the meaning or object signified by that word. It lacks that power either by itself or in conjunction with the power of that object being the referent object of the mental labeling and designation.
  • Consider the example of seeing a red bump on our face. The defining characteristic mark of a red bump establishes it as a validly knowable object on our face, despite its not coming from an external natal source separate from our cognition of it. But when we think about that red bump, that characteristic mark does not have the power establish it as belonging to the category “pimple,” with all the negative connotations to it. Nor does it have the power to establish it as belonging to the category “ugly object,” “disaster” and so on. It is merely a red bump that probably not everyone will even notice, let alone judge as being ugly. Consider the problems and suffering we experience when we are unaware of this.
Existence established by the power of its defining characteristic mark and not merely by the power of its being the referent object of mental labeling with a category and designation with a word

As a validly knowable object, whether by sensory non-conceptual cognition or by conceptual cognition, and having truly established existence As a basis that, when a category is conceptually labeled on it and a word conceptually designated on it, establishes by the power of its defining characteristic mark alone that the object belongs to that category and is the meaning or object specified by that word
Vaibhashika Yes Yes
Sautrantika Yes Yes
Chittamatra Yes No, although the defining characteristic mark alone has the power to establish it as a validly knowable object with truly established existence, it is established as belonging to the category and as being the meaning or object signified by a word merely by the power of its being the referent object of the mental labeling and designation
  • The subtle selflessness of phenomena (chos-kyi bdag-med phra-mo, subtle identitlyessness of all phenomena, subtle lack of an impossible soul of all phenomena), then, is the non-implicative negation that there is no such way of establishing the existence of dependent phenomena that appear in conceptual cognition as belonging to the category with which they are labeled and as being the meaning and object signified by the words with which they are designated, as it being by the power of their individual defining characteristic marks alone or by these characteristic marks in conjunction with the power of the phenomena being the referent objects of the mental labeling and designation. This is a unique assertion of Tsongkhapa.

Svatantrika

  • Svatantrika has two divisions, Yogachara Svatantrika and Sautrantika Svatantrika. Tsongkhapa asserts a true aspectarian view of both, whereas many previous and later masters assert a false aspectarian view.
  • Both Yogachara and Sautrantika Svatantrika assert a person’s coarse and subtle selflessnesses the same as in Sautrantika and Chittamatra.
  • Both do not assert foundation consciousness. They assert that the individual defining characteristic mark of a person is found on the side of mental consciousness as a basis for the defining characteristics (of both mental consciousness and a person) (mtshan-gzhi rnam-shes). Tsongkhapa is unique in this assertion.
  • Yogachara Svatantrika asserts the coarse selflessness of phenomena the same as in Chittamatra. Sautrantika Svatantrika does not assert a coarse selflessness of phenomena, only a subtle selflessness of phenomena.
  • Unlike Chittamatra, neither Yogachara nor Sautrantika Svatantrika differentiates the power of the defining characteristic mark of an item to establish something’s existence as a validly knowable phenomenon from its power to establish that item as belonging to a category or as the meaning or object signified by a word. Tsongkhapa’s entire discussion of this is unique.
  • Both Yogachara and Sautrantika Svatantrika assert that the existence of something both as a validly knowable object and as belonging to a category and being the meaning or object signified by a word is established by the power of that object’s defining characteristic mark in conjunction with being the referent object of mental labeling with a category and designation with a word. 
  • The subtle selflessness of phenomena is the non-implicative negation that there is no such way of establishing the existence of phenomena as it being by the power of their defining characteristic marks alone and not merely by the phenomena being the referent objects of mental labeling with categories and designation with words. This is a unique assertion of Tsongkhapa.
  • The conventional existence of phenomena can only be established by the power of their being the referent objects of mental labeling with categories and designation with words in conjunction with the power of their defining characteristic marks themselves. Since truly established existence is existence established by the power of something’s defining characteristic mark alone, Svatantrika also refutes truly established existence.
Existence established by the power of its defining characteristic mark and not merely by the power of its being the referent object of mental labeling with a category and designation with a word
Vaibhashika Yes
Sautrantika Yes
Chittamatra Yes
Svatantrika No, the phenomenon is established as a validly knowable object by the power of its defining characteristic mark found on its own side and in conjunction with the power of its being the referent object of mental labeling with the category “validly knowable object” and designation with the word “thing”
  • Consider the example of the red bump on our face. Although the red bump has on its own side the defining characteristic mark that, by convention, could be the defining characteristic mark of a “thing,” and also the defining characteristic of a “pimple,” “something ugly,” or a “disaster,” this characteristic mark does not establish the red bump as existing as any of those phenomena independently of someone mentally labeling them with these categories and designating them with these words. Since these characteristic marks do not have this power by themselves, then it’s our choice how we label it. If we simply don’t label the red bump with the categories “ugly pimple” and “disaster,” we won’t have a problem with it. We can label it simply as a “red bump.” Others may label it as an “ugly pimple” and a “disaster,” because it does, in fact, have the characteristic mark enabling it, by convention, to be validly labeled as such, but we would realize that is just because they have or had a problem with red bumps on their own faces, and so they think in terms of those categories. We don’t have to think in such terms. It is not truly established as an ugly pimple that is a disaster simply from its own side alone. And just because they think it is a disaster and label it as such, that too, by itself, doesn’t have the power to establish it as a disaster. So, if we care what others think, then without getting upset or stressed, we simply apply some cream on the red bump. Think of the problems we have when we do not realize this.  
  • Because Svatantrika asserts existence established by something’s defining characteristic mark in conjunction with mental labeling and designation, it does not refute self-established existence. Because the defining characteristic mark still plays a role in establishing the existence of a validly knowable phenomenon, the existence of that phenomenon is not merely established by its being the referent object of mental labeling and designation. Its self-nature is a self-establishing nature, and so a phenomenon being the referent object of mental labeling or designation means that it is actually a referent “thing” backing up, as a focal support, the labeling and designation of it – in other words, it has existence established by its self-nature. It has so-called “inherently established existence.” 

Prasangika

  • Although Prasangika accepts the coarse selflessness of persons asserted by the other tenet systems, it does not count it as one of the levels of selflessness of a person.
  • For Prasangika, the coarse selflessness of persons is the same as what the other tenet systems assert as subtle selflessness of persons – because there is no such thing as a self-sufficiently knowable imputation phenomenon, the coarse selflessness of persons is the non-implicative negation that there is no such way of establishing the existence of a person as it being by the power of a person being self-sufficiently knowable. Tsongkhapa is unique in asserting this as the coarse selflessness of persons in Prasangika.
  • Prasangika does not assert a coarse selflessness of phenomena, only a subtle such selflessness. Tsongkhapa is unique in asserting that the subtle selflessness of all phenomena and the subtle selflessness of persons is the same, and that non-conceptual cognition of this subtle selflessness is needed for attaining liberation.  
  • Although all phenomena have defining characteristic marks cognized by the mental factor of distinguishing, Prasangika, unlike the other systems, asserts that the characteristic marks have no power, either by themselves or in conjunction with mental labeling and designation, to establish the existence of something as a validly knowable object or as belonging to a category with which they are mentally labeled or as being the meaning or object signified by a word with which it is designated. Prasangika asserts that the only way to establish the existence of something as a validly knowable object is that it is the referent object of a mental label (a category, a concept) or a word when it is labeled or designated on a basis for labeling or designation.
  • The subtle selflessness of both phenomena and persons is the non-implicative negation: there is no such way of establishing the existence of phenomena as it being by the power of their defining characteristic marks and not merely by their being the referent objects of mental labeling with categories and designation with words. Thus, there is no such thing as truly established existence.
Existence established by the power of its defining characteristic mark and not merely by the power of its being the referent object of mental labeling with a category and designation with a word
Vaibhashika Yes
Sautrantika Yes
Chittamatra Yes
Svatantrika No, the phenomenon is established as a validly knowable object by the power of its defining characteristic mark found on its own side and in conjunction with the power of its being the referent object of mental labeling with the category “validly knowable object” and designation with the word “thing”
Prasangika No, the phenomenon is established as a validly knowable object merely by the power of its being the referent object of mental labeling with a category and designation with a word
  • Because Prasangika asserts that phenomena lack truly established existence in the sense that their existence as validly knowable phenomena can be established only in terms of mental labeling or designation alone, that means that the existence of phenomena can only be established as the referent objects of mental labeling or designation. Thus, they cannot be established by the power of their being referent “things.” Thus, Prasangika also refutes self-established existence.
  • Consider once more the example of the red bump on our face. There is nothing on the side of the red bump that has the power to establish it as a pimple, an ugly object and a disaster, even in conjunction with the power of its being mentally labeled and designated as such. Even if it is mentally labeled and designated as such, those labels and designations merely refer to some agreed-upon convention – an ugly pimple that is a disaster. They do not establish the red bump as some findable “thing” on our face that is truly ugly and a disaster from its own side. A red bump on our face is established as an “ugly pimple that is a disaster” merely in terms of what mentally labeled concepts and categories and conceptually designated words refer to. Being an “ugly pimple that is a disaster,” then, simply arises dependently on a red bump being labeled and designated as such. When we deconstruct even the red bump itself and consider how it arises dependently on its causes, conditions and parts, as well as on the categories, concepts and words “red” and “bump,” we realize that it what we see on our face cannot possibly be a concrete findable referent “thing” with a self-establishing nature with the power to establish it as even a “red bump.” This is because there are no such things as self-establishing natures and referent “things.” Think of the problems we have when we do not realize this.    
  • Because the conventional existence of all phenomena can only be established dependently on the power of their being the referent objects of mental labeling and designation, then from the point of view of this aspect of dependent arising, there is no difference between (a) nonstatic, noncongruent affecting variables, such as persons, as imputations, (b) static phenomena, such as categories, as mental labels and (c) words as designations. Therefore, the same Sanskrit and Tibetan term is used for imputation, mental labeling and designation. 

Differences between the Gelug and Non-Gelug Assertions

  • Just because the existence of conventional phenomena can only be established merely by the fact that they are the referent objects of mental labeling and designation, that does not mean that mental labeling and designation – both of which are conceptual processes – create all conventional phenomena as conceptual mental fabrications (spros-pa) or collectional mental syntheses (tshogs-spyi), as many systems prior to Tsongkhapa had asserted.
  • Many of these previous systems, and later ones as well, assert that sensory non-conceptual cognition through one type of cognitive sensor (dbang-po), for instance eye sensors, cognizes only colored shapes or, according to Shakya Chogden, only colored pixels – and only one moment of them. It does this through an opaque mental hologram of the colored shapes or pixels. Conceptual cognition cognizes an opaque mental hologram, which is a mental synthesis into a commonsense conventional object, of all the sense information of the sensory object, extending over time. Because of that, commonsense conventional objects (‘jig-rten-la grags-pa) can only be known conceptually.
  • Tsongkhapa asserts that sensory non-conceptual cognition, for instance through eye sensors, cognizes not only colored shapes, but also commonsense conventional objects. It does this through totally transparent mental holograms of both. Thus, commonsense conventional objects can be known both non-conceptually as well as conceptually.
  • Tsongkhapa asserts that commonsense conventional objects, whether validly cognized non-conceptually or conceptually, appear to have truly established existence to a mind obscured by the constant habits of grasping for truly established existence – except when non-conceptually totally absorbed on voidness. This is merely their superficial truth, veiling their deepest truth, their voidness.
  • Nevertheless, we need to differentiate the conventional appearance of what they are from the conventional appearance of how they exist. The former can be either accurate or inaccurate in terms of what a mind validly cognizing conventional truths cognizes, whereas the latter – the appearance of having truly established existence – is always false. This differentiation is based on conventional commonsense objects having two essential natures (ngo-bo) – one in terms of superficial truth and one in terms of deepest truth. The refutation of the appearance of truly established existence does not refute the validity of an accurate conventional appearance.
  • Many systems prior to Tsongkhapa did not make this differentiation, and so they refute all appearances of superficial truth, which Tsongkhapa calls “over-refutation” (khyab-chen) and the extreme of nihilism (’jig-mtha’).
  • Since all appearances of superficially true phenomena, such as commonsense conventional objects, appear to be truly established and are therefore false, and appear only to the minds of limited beings, Tsongkhapa agrees with these other positions that Buddhas do not cognize superficial truths. Nevertheless, Tsongkhapa asserts that the omniscient mind of a Buddha cognizes mere conventionalities (tha-snyad-pa-tsam) or mere superficialities (kun-rdzob-pa tsam).
  • Although mere conventionalities or superficialities are not findable bases onto which limited beings project appearances of truly established existence while Buddhas don’t make such projections, many later masters, such as Gorampa from the Sakya tradition, the Eighth Karmapa Mikyo Dorje from the Karma Kagyu tradition and Mipam from the Nyingma tradition, assert that Tsongkhapa’s position amounts to this above misinterpretation and therefore his position is an under-refutation (khyab-chung) and the extreme of absolutism (rtag-mtha’).
  • They claim that in differentiating the object to be refuted (truly established existence) from the basis for refutation (superficial truths appearing to be truly existent), Tsongkhapa’s view of Prasangika amounted to the same as his view of Svatantrika, namely that the refutation did not negate the ultimately findable existence of superficial truths.
  • Tsongkhapa, in fact, never presented the ultimate findable existence of either superficial truths or mere conventionalities. Nevertheless, as he emphasized over and again In Praise of Dependent Arising, (19) “Because of the line of reasoning, dependent arising, one does not become founded in an extreme view.” This excellent statement (of yours) is the cause for your speech, O Guardian, being peerless. (20) All these (things) are devoid (of being established) by an essential nature, while from “this,” “this” arises as a result. These two certainties, without hindering one another, serve as (mutual) helps. (21) What could be more amazing than this? What could be more marvelous than this? There is no other way of praising than to praise you in this way.
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